< Part 4
Last year, we kicked off a look back at the 90s cult classic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series, spearheaded by Joss Whedon, celebrates its 25th Anniversary this March. The show ran for over one hundred episodes, and we’re counting them down from bottom to top. You can check out all our previous articles in the series, breaking down each season of Buffy (and Angel to boot), as well as the previous installments in our episode-ranking countdown, here: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The time has come to talk about the episode that, I believe, is the greatest in the series.
#1 – Once More With Feeling– season 6, episode 7
I suppose I should begin by explaining my criteria. After all, someone else might very easily place “The Body” at the top of the list and bump this one to the #2 or #3 spot. Another fan might be inclined to favor something a bit more traditional than either episode and place something like “Hush” or “The Zeppo” or “Graduation Day 1-2” at the top of their listing. I suppose you could make a pretty good argument for any of the top dozen or so to be the show’s greatest episode.
For me, I don’t use the term “greatest” to mean “most flawless” or even, necessarily, the “best all around.” I use “greatest” to mean “the episode most transcendent, or most memorable; the boldest, most souped-up, special-feeling outing in the series.” In Marvel terms, I consider Endgame to be the “greatest” MCU movie, even if I also think Infinity War is a “better” film. The epicness and hugeness of Endgame places it on a higher tier in my estimation.
And that’s how I feel about “Once More With Feeling.” You can hold up literally any other “great” or “awesome” or “excellent” or any other adjective-episode and, other than maybe “The Body,” they all feel like Buffy episodes, only done very very well. Sure, in “Hush,” everyone loses their voice and 75% of the episode is played out like a silent movie. It’s a remarkably well-done gimmick but, at the end of the day, it’s still just a Buffy episode, only with a layer of cleverness on top.
“The Body,” is the most un-Buffy-like episode of them all, even more un-Buffy-like than this one. Other than the final scene, which features an apparently obligatory vampire slaying in the morgue, there’s nothing really to link it to the themes or plots of the show around it. The quips are gone. The music is absent. There’s no talk of the Big Bad. There’s no quest to go on in the vain hopes of undoing what has happened. In “The Body,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer stops being itself for an hour so that its characters can process the cold and bitter reality of mortality. It’s because of that stark un-Buffyness, despite how utterly masterful it is as a piece of fiction, I could only slot it as #3. “Hush” got the nod over it simply because it was a bit more “Buffy-like.”
“Once More With Feeling,” being a musical, is naturally going to be viewed as the most unusual episode of the show. But really, it’s more traditional than either “Hush” or “The Body.” That being said, had it been an episode content to settle for being a gimmick, with nothing else under the surface, it would not have been rated at the top of the list. There’s something else going on here that earns its high praise.
So let me sing its praises in a few different ways, and hopefully settle on what it is that makes it “the greatest.”
Something I said in the season six write-up…
What’s most remarkable about this year is how the episode everyone loves from the season, “Once More With Feeling,” is often lauded as being a happy oasis in a sea of gloominess. In reality, “Once More With Feeling” is the most poignant episode of the whole series. It might not be as straight-forwardly sad as “The Body” but it’s a close second. The difference is that it hides its sadness behind the song and dance numbers. When you read the lyrics to the songs in question you soon realize that Joss used his “musical episode” as a way to sort of lay out his thesis for the whole season.
What sets this episode apart from basically every other “musical episode” that has been done as a copycat of this one, is that the songs are not sung just for the sake of singing. Yes, there’s the Mustard Song, and the Parking Ticket Song, which are quick little gags and nothing more, but when you look at the big numbers starring the main cast, they’re not just singing pointless lyrics. They’re expressing the thoughts they’ve been wrestling with for some time and, for one reason or another, had been unwilling to share out loud.
The villain of the picture, the demon Sweet, is the most successful fiend in the history of the show. He wins in basically every possible way short of getting Buffy to die, which was only ever a secondary goal for him anyway. His job is to sow mischief, discord, and unease amongst the Scoobies. His job is to take the gently smoldering fires of their collective depression, anxiety and other negative emotions, and turn up the heat until the gang is a raging fire of discontentment.
Everything that happens in this episode could have happened in a dozen different ways. The Scoobies could have come under the influence of a Demon who can read minds. They could have broken a magical lamp at the Magic Shop that makes them all share minds for a day. They could have had a Bottle Episode in Buffy’s house in the middle of a heatwave when the air conditioning breaks, and they’re all hot and frustrated and on each other’s nerves till they unload all their frustrations out for everyone to hear.
There are countless ways to reveal the dark secrets of the group, or even to hint at problems that will come to a head later in the season. Joss chose to use music. It was “an excuse” to have a “music episode” but unlike other shows, the music served the story, not the other way around.